If you seek to follow Jesus, you know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. Today we live in what’s often called a “post-Christian” America. Though the western world has never had an official religion, a generation or so ago we inhabited a society whose arts and ethics were largely shaped by Christian values. No more. Now, Christianity is seen as quaint, outdated—the relic of a “Leave-it-to-Beaver” style America, where women were relegated to the kitchen and blacks to the back of the bus. We’ve moved past this era; why would anyone wish to go back again?
So it’s only understandable that those who pursue the values of the Bible would be looked down on—at best as religious fanatics; at worst as repressive bigots.
Perhaps it’s surprising, but one of the most beloved psalms of the Bible arose out of a culture not entirely unlike our own. Psalm 119 is a famously lengthy psalm, one that has fascinated scholars and preachers alike. Yet no one felt they could ever do justice to its rich depth. As early as the fourth century, Augustine shied away from commenting on this psalm, feeling it required not “an expositor, but only a reader and a listener.”
Structurally, the psalm follows a basic pattern. The psalm contains a total of 22 sections of 8 lines each. It’s also an acrostic poem. If you were to read the psalm in the original Hebrew, you’d notice that each of the 22 sections begins with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So we can actually think of this psalm as forming something of the “A to Z” of scripture’s impact in our life.
And yes, the subject of the psalm is the Bible itself. It is the lengthiest and most renowned example of the “Torah” psalms—songs sung in celebration of God’s revealed truth in His Word. In his commentary on psalms, Walter Brueggeman writes:
“Clearly this psalm probes beyond the simplistic formulation of Psalm 1. A life of full obedience is not a conclusion of faith. It is a beginning point and an access to a life filled with many-sided communion with God.” (Walter Brueggeman, Psalms, p. 41)
But what do we know about the man that wrote this song? Almost nothing. This isn’t a song written by David; the author remains a mystery. Still, the psalm hints at the life situation of the author—and the way he seemed to inhabit a hostile world, one where God’s truth was increasingly being dismissed as irrelevant.
In our week-long exploration of this magnificent psalm, we’ll be using Derek Kidner’s excellent commentary as something of a guide. In his commentary, Kidner identifies three specific things we can learn about the psalmist’s situation:
1.) AN ALIEN WORLD SHOULD SADDEN US, NOT SURPRISE US
Indeed, we are strangers in a strange land. “It is time for the Lord to act,” he laments, “for your law has been broken” (Ps 119:126). Clearly there was more than skepticism at work. The psalmist’s neighbors seemed literally hell-bent on living their own way. The psalmist calls them “double-minded” (Ps 119:113), meaning they lacked the singular commitment of God’s people. They lay in wait “to destroy me” (Ps 119:95), and may have even been rooted in derision and slander (Ps 119:22, 23, 69, 85). The psalmist’s reaction is simple, yet relatable:
My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law. (Ps 119:136)
As God’s people, we will find ourselves surrounded by men and women who live by their own set of rules—surely not God’s. If we’re not careful, this can lead to a sense of moral alarm and outrage. “Can you believe what the kids are doing these days?” “I can’t believe that the government would allow ________________!” And you can fill in the blank yourself. The psalmist lived in far more threatening world than ours. Yet his hands never clenched into fists. Instead his eyes shed tears of compassion. In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons calls Christians to be “provoked, not offended,” meaning that we react to the moral decline of our world with love. Yes, we must remain discerning. But we also must remember that Jesus promised that the world we live in will get worse, not better (Matthew 24).
2.) GOD’S PEOPLE LIVE IN AN ONGOING BATTLE
The psalmist laments that “the cords of the wicked ensare” him (Ps 119:61ff). In verse 36, he asks:
“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” (Ps 119:36)
And while the psalmist knows God’s commands (Ps 119:110), he later admits that they are hard to keep:
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” (Ps 119:176)
God made the world so, so good. Yet there is nothing good that man can’t bend toward his own selfish gain. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis suggests that the devil has no power to create—only pervert. The reason temptation is so overwhelming is because Satan is a master of taking God’s good gifts and enticing us with them in ways or degrees that are inappropriate. Sex, for example, is a beautiful gift meant to be shared by those who have committed their lives to one another in marriage. Yet statistics show that this boundary has been repeatedly broken by those outside and inside the walls of traditional church.
We should therefore recognize the profound pull that sin has—even in the Godliest of people. And we should similarly learn from this writer’s own brokenness, that there will be many battles for our hearts—battles that we often lose and give in to fleshly desire. Though it’s a lifelong struggle, we can remain confident that at the cross, Jesus won the war—and His victory is credited to our account before God.
3.) GOD’S PEOPLE PERSEVERE
Kidner characterizes the psalmist’s prevailing attitude as one of “quiet steadfastness.” In verse 44 the psalmist uses such words as “continually, forever and ever.” He presses on, still eager to learn (“give me understanding”) and to grow (“give me life”). For many outside the church, Christianity must seem a beautiful dream. It grants people hope, grants them courage in the face of suffering. But it can be nothing more than that—a dream, a wishful story meant only to numb us to the harshness of our world. It’s no wonder Marx so famously called religion the “opiate of the people”—implant people with false hope, he said, and they will come to tolerate even the vilest oppression.
But if the gospel is true, if Jesus truly rose from the dead, then Christianity moves from the realm of fantasy into the light of certainty. The Bible is a story of how we can experience this same victory in our lives, that this harsh world we currently reside in will eventually be transformed into God’s paradise, where we can all experience God’s kingdom like never before.
So don’t lose hope. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you live in a world wholly opposed to God’s truth. Because Jesus is the true and better psalmist. He chose to leave the security of heaven where he—like the psalmist describes—would experience rejection, ridicule, and death. But Jesus rose again, so that we might persevere with a new identity and a new hope.
In the next few days, we’ll unpack further the truths of this psalm, and explore the ways we can see the gospel in every letter of this beautiful piece.